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Wanda Dowell — Fort Ward's Guiding Hand

Alexandria Life

August 22, 2002

Over the past three decades, the Fort Ward Museum has become known for its collection of Civil War artifacts and its educational programs. Wanda Dowell, who has just retired, bears a good deal of the responsibility for both the collection and the museum’s reputation.

"She is remarkable,” said Susan Cumby, the museum’s current director. “She has shared her knowledge of the Civil War and of working in a museum with countless young professionals who have spent time at Fort Ward. We all owe her an immense debt of gratitude.”

Dowell, a native of Kentucky, came to Alexandria in 1950 and to work at Fort Ward in 1965. “I have always had a keen interest in the Civil War and loved working at Fort Ward,” she said. “Also, I’ve lived in the city for more than 50 years, so I think of myself as an Alexandrian.”

When she first went to work at Fort Ward, it wasn’t a museum. “It was a visitor’s center,” she said. “When I arrived, Col. Francis Lord had just loaned his collection to us, and it was there in boxes, waiting to be displayed. That was really the beginning.”

And it has steadily grown, not in size, but in stature.

“Wanda worked really hard to make the most of her resources,” said Jean Federico, the director of the Office of Historic Alexandria. “Her knowledge of working with Plexiglas and putting together displays has been invaluable.”

Working with Plexiglas often meant cutting it and using power tools to mount displays. “We have always been amazed at the way she works with tools,” Cumby said. “She was involved in every aspect of the exhibits. I remember once seeing her stitch a flag onto a background. Many museum directors certainly don’t have that kind of hands-on knowledge of their collection.”

DOWELL WAS creative in obtaining federal funding to support Fort Ward. “We got the first conservation grant from the Institute for Library and Museum Services for moving dirt and landscaping,” Cumby said.

Dowell explained. “The centerpiece of the museum is the Fort,” she said. “While most people think of conservation with respect to paintings or other items, we needed to preserve and protect the Fort. I applied for the grant, and we got it – as a matter of fact, we got three different grants to conserve the Fort.”

In all, Dowell obtained more than $192,000 in federal grants over a 15-year period. She also saw the museum through two accreditations.

“There are over 8,000 museums in this country,” Dowell said. “Only about 700 or 800 of those are accredited. Alexandria has three accredited museums, and Fort Ward is one of them. We were accredited in 1987 and again in 1999. Museums go through accreditation every 10 years.”

The other two Alexandria museums that are accredited are Gadsby’s Tavern Museum and The Lyceum.

Another of Dowell’s successes was her work on the Virginia Civil War Trail. “We have classified over 200 sites in Virginia as Civil War sites,” she said. “Alexandria was the first city to be designated as a Civil War site in its entirety.”

Not surprising, because two-thirds of the population of the city left during the war, and the city was occupied longer than any other locality.

Dowell also worked hard to develop educational programs. Fort Ward won awards for the work that the staff does with public-school children. “It’s very important to bring history to life for children and adults,” she said. “While the battles and battlefields are important, we like to talk to children about how the war impacted life for ordinary people. That’s just as important.”

DOWELL MAY have retired from Fort Ward, but she is by no means retired from the historical community. She is currently serving as vice president of the Alexandria Historical Society and is doing consulting for the Virginia Historical Society. “Thirty-seven years is a long time to do any one thing,” she said. “It’s time to give someone else a chance to move up at Fort Ward, and it’s time for me to go play a bit and try something new.”